Did the reform efforts of Zwingli, with his emphasis on calling people back to Scripture, go far enough? There were some who answered that question with a firm no. These groups, collectively known as Anabaptists, affirmed Zwingli’s emphasis on adhering to only what is found in Scripture and nothing else. But Anabaptists wanted to take this principle further than Zwingli did and be obedient to the full extent of what they found in Scripture. And what did they see in Scripture? They saw the church as a community of believers. This was in contrast to the prevailing idea of the time that everyone in society was part of the church. For example, it was an assumed fact that every infant would be baptized.
Looking to Scripture, Anabaptists also saw that the early church was separate from the state and should be free from the interference of civil leaders and authorities. As one scholar notes, “little groups of Anabaptist believers gathered about their Bibles. They discovered a different world in the pages of the New Testament. They found no state-church alliance, no Christendom. Instead, they discovered that the apostolic churches were companies of committed believers, communities of men and women who had freely and personally chosen to follow Jesus. And for the sixteenth century, that was a revolutionary idea.”
It should be noted that the term Anabaptists refers to many different groups. Distinct movements all fell under the category of Anabaptist in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. The name Anabaptist was actually given to them by their opponents. Anabaptist means “rebaptizer.” The Anabaptists didn’t technically believe in a second baptism—they didn’t believe infant baptism was legitimate in the first place. They believed only adult baptism was valid—that once one confessed faith in Jesus Christ, one was to be baptized. But by branding them “rebaptizers,” opponents were able to successfully associate Anabaptists with an older heresy and successfully make the case for their condemnation.
Opposition and Persecution
Called radicals by Protestants and Catholics, Anabaptists were seen as being incredibly subversive. Why were Anabaptists considered such a threat? Anabaptists disregarded key parts of society. For example, as pacifists, they refused to serve in the military.
Two Anabaptist leaders, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, were former followers of Zwingli. Living in the city of Zurich, they desired to see the church of their day fully living what is found in Scripture: as Shelley puts it, “a church free from the state and composed of true disciples.” In 1524, Grebel’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. This was the moment of truth. Adhering to their views, the Grebels did not baptize their son. This set off a firestorm in the city of Zurich. A debate was held to hash out beliefs between the more moderate and more radical reformers. Zwingli and his camp were deemed the winners of the debate, and it was ordered that all babies must be baptized. If people did not comply, they would be forced to leave the city.
Refusing to abandon their beliefs, Grebel, Manz, and their community left the city of Zurich. And they would face increasing opposition. Initially, many of the Anabaptists were imprisoned for their actions. But tensions escalated when, in 1527, Felix Manz was martyred.
Why did the situation escalate? Remember, Anabaptists were seen as those who undermined society. Because of this they faced persecution in both Catholic and Protestant regions of Europe. It is estimated that thousands of Anabaptists were killed. But the Anabaptist movement did not die out. One Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, led a group of Anabaptists in the Netherlands. The Mennonites bear his name today. Other modern-day o shoots include the Amish. Denominations that bear the indirect influence of the Anabaptists include the Baptists and Congregationalists.
What strikes you about the reform efforts of the Anabaptists? What do you think the modern- day church can learn from their example? The Anabaptists’ reform efforts were a threat to their society, because they claimed Christianity was to be lived out in small communities in accordance with the explicit teaching of Scripture. Similarly, the first-century Christians were a threat to their society because they claimed that there was a more important kingdom than that of the Roman Empire: the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Both Christian movements spread because of the way people maintained their faith in Christ and love for others, even in the face of persecution. How are today’s Christians “a threat” in our postmodern society?